The exhibition at Ryugaheon Gallery marked my fifth trip to Seoul in as many years. The gallery itself is known to photographers but not always to a larger audience. It sits tucked away in a little alley that is reached after a fairly labyrinthine walk through the back streets behind the old Imperial Palace.
When you arrive, you enter into a tiny zen garden with gravel underfoot and rough hewn wooden benches. Built in the traditional hannok style, the gallery itself feels more like a modest temple or a forest shrine than an art space per se. Clusters of tiny yellow flowers sprout here and there on its tiled roof. On one side of the garden is a bookstore and café. Beyond that, there’s an office and a workshop. On the other is the entrance to the exhibition area.
Having this show in Seoul changed my relationship with the city in an essential way. It’s hard to describe the feeling of belonging that comes from having your photographs on display and being able to bring friends to visit day after day. It’s like welcoming them into your house. As if you’ve set up residence there. Not only that, but friends bring friends and -before you know it- your circle has expanded dramatically to include all kinds of interesting people.
But of course, the greatest pleasure is seeing the work in a new context and hearing back from local audiences. It was a long journey indeed for the Latin American mechanics to make: not only from Willets Point -but from their countries of origin. Perhaps because of Korea’s Buddhist roots, many people remarked on the passing of the seasons in these photographs and the way the light and the elements redefined the landscape depending on the time of the year. Others compared Willets Point to neighborhoods in Seoul, which have –or perhaps more interestingly once had- a similar feel. One particularly perceptive man noted that the passing of the seasons underscored the useful life of machines and how everything in the world has a cyclical duration.
On two separate occasions, my Korean mother in law organized a large group of friends to come and visit the exhibition. I especially enjoyed these visits because the ladies dressed up in their finest and made a day out of it. They really enjoyed themselves. And as such, they lingered, spoke from the heart and felt free to reminisce. One woman responded to an image of a small stack of tires covered in snow with a childhood memory of her own, remembering the large earthenware jars of kimchi sitting in her mother’s yard during the winter months. Hearing that was a modest epiphany; I felt like the image had translated beautifully and poetically in a most unexpected manner.